West Side Story: The Tale of Two Ensembles

by Ilana Cohen

Although each individual has their own story and identity, one can gain a better understanding of one’s identity by seeing them in their community. A person’s community influences how one performs culture, race, religion, gender, and sexuality; thus, to fully understand one’s cultural identity, their community and how they interact with members of their community must be analyzed. In a musical theatre context, the ensemble is the community. Ensembles provide the audience a deeper grasp into the lives of principal characters by showing how the people in the principal’s life act towards them and towards each other, informing the character’s behaviors and beliefs. The film adaptation of the musical West Side Story demonstrates how important ensemble can be in understanding principal characters’ cultural identities. The distinct performances of the two ensembles in West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks and their respective ladies, both separately and interacting, gives the audience insight into how these starkly different groups perform gender, sexuality, and race, and how each groups’ identity performances are received by one another and greater American society.

American audiences get to observe the immigrant experience from the perspectives of various Puerto Rican immigrants through the performances of the Sharks and their female counterparts. The production number “America” gives insight into the Puerto Rican cultural identity held by the Sharks and their ladies through their energetic and expressive choreography. The dance movements are sharp and quick with many kicks and turns. The footwork is intricate and is combined with arm and hip movements to give them a Latin flavor. Though the movements incorporate identifiably Latin style in the choreography, it is the energy and the expression in the way the movements are performed that truly form the Puerto Rican identity. The performers are full of happiness and spirit as their movements embody a celebration of life. With the joy they exude through their movements in combination with the lyrics celebrating their new lives in America, the ladies show their unique perspective as Puerto Rican immigrants, and their shared joy unites them and adds to their ethnic identity. While most of the number was the men and women dancing alternating back and forth, highlighting conflicting views because the women were taking to life in America better than the men, by the end of the number, they were all dancing simultaneously showing that they are united in their ethnic identity and share a passion and love for life shown through their energetic, up-beat dancing. 

Not only is the choreography of this number significant for understanding the Sharks Latinx identity, but also the lyrics show differing outlooks on their identity as immigrants is important. The song starts with Anita, backed by the ladies, and Bernardo, backed by the Sharks, arguing back and forth about how they feel about America. Anita and the women sing about the opportunities and benefits of moving to America, while Bernardo and the Sharks focus on how they are marginalized in America and were better off in Puerto Rico. The differing viewpoints of the Puerto Rican men and women on immigrating to America is significant because it shows that there is not a single opinion of a cultural group. Instead, the lyrics show that within any cultural group, individuals can still have their own opinions and perspectives. This idea is important because it humanizes each member of the ensemble, making them be seen as individuals within a group rather than a nondescript, androgynous group. Jerome Robbins cared about this concept and intentionally choreographed his dancers not completely in unison or with the same moves as to make them look like a community of distinct individuals rather than a mass of the same character. In his interview, Nikko Kimzin, who played a Shark in a production of West Side Story, talks about how the director purposefully had each ensemble member have a name, know their rank in their gang, what part of the city they are from, and who their girlfriend is, so each ensemble member would be able to create a unique character with a background that could inform their interactions with one another.

The Jets offer audiences observation of a group that is usually overlooked by society: the teenage children of the previous generation of immigrants that came to America. Their parents came from Europe seeking a better life and were treated as outsiders when they came to America.  The majority of these immigrants struggled greatly when they arrived in America, having to live in small, crowded apartments and work long hours at factory jobs. However, not many people think about the struggles of the next generation, being raised in these impoverished neighborhoods with their parents not around because they are constantly working. In the musical number “Gee Officer Krupke!,” the audience sees the struggles and marginalization of the Jets by American society. The Jets are seen as punks and delinquents to the rest of society, especially Officer Krupke, which makes sense as they are shown only as combative and rowdy previously in the show. This number is the first time that the audience members are supposed to sympathize with the Jets, as they blame their depravity on their harsh home life and adolescence. While the Jets previously only portrayed themselves as hypermasculine and mature, during this number, the Jets infantilize themselves– dancing around, making silly faces, and using funny voices to act out various scenarios– to elicit sensitivity from the audience by making the audience see them as children still. The number ends with the Jets in unison saying “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you,” which represents the Jets attitude toward greater society. Society has cast them off as delinquents despite all of the mitigating factors that made them so misbehaved, so the Jets decided to cast off society and just stick to one another. 

By understanding the background of the Jets and how they are treated in society, it is easier to understand why they cling to their identity as Jets. Outcast from the rest of society, the Jets found community within each other, bonded by their shared upbringing and resulting marginalization. The strength of their Jet community is shown through the Jet Song, in which the members of the Jets sing about their pride for being a Jet. The Jets walk tall and fast down the street in a large clump, showing the strength of their community, and they climb onto elevated surfaces like see-saws and park benches to show their pride and their clout. However, to fully understand the Jets identity, the audience must examine how the Jets interact with their rival gang, the Sharks.

Production numbers in which the two ensembles interact allow the audience to understand what relations were like between these cultural groups. The relationships between the different ensembles in West Side Story can be seen most clearly in the number “Dance at the Gym.” Both groups begin walking in circles, girls on the inside and boys on the outside, to find their partners for the dance. As they walk in a circle, the hostility between the groups is visible through the dirty looks exchanged, and when the music ends and they are to partner with the person in front of them, the looks of disgust when the Jet girl sees she is to dance with Bernardo followed by the Sharks going to the Shark girls and the Jets doing the same without a word said, shows how obvious their feud was that though it was unspoken, the Sharks and Jets knew they could not dance with one another. Once the partners are all sorted out, both groups begin the Mambo, doing the same dance all together in the gym, with only the reds and purples of the Sharks costumes allowing the audience to distinguish them from the Jets, dressed in blues and yellows. The contrasts between the groups can be seen early on in the number, as the Sharks begin to incorporate hip and arm movements that show them as distinctly Latinx. In contrast, the Jets incorporate popular American dance moves like the Twist and head bobbing into their dance, showing them as culturally white, especially when compared to the Sharks.  Additionally, the Sharks and their ladies have their hands all over one another while they dance while the Jets and their ladies do not really touch each other. These stark contrasts in dance show how the Sharks and Jets express their sexuality and ethnicity differently, giving the audience some idea why the Sharks and the Jets do not get along.

Though the film is revered and is most people’s only familiarity with West Side Story, the film adaptation of the musical gets rid of the emphasis on ensemble and takes away the viewer’s ability to choose who they watch. The film imposes the director’s own artistic interpretation of the piece on film as it is his choice what the audience is shown and what is highlighted. Thus, the film version of West Side Story does not show the full impact an ensemble can have on the audience’s understanding of the cultural identities of characters in a musical. Without a film director choosing to focus the camera in on the ensemble, it is important for the audience to choose times to focus on the ensemble in a stage production, observing how they perform the choreography, how they act toward one another, and how they act towards outside characters. It is through these community interactions and performances of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that the audience can understand the cultural identities of the principal characters.

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